There was also trepidation.
“This is going to be tricky, if I’m going to be quite honest,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We could have a week off. That’s probably the worst thing you can have when there’s really not anything to do.”
In another season, a week off might be a welcome respite in the midst of a jam-packed postseason schedule. The Hurricanes actually had five days off last season following a sweep of the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Second Round.
But this season is different. There is no going home, no spending time with the family, no leaving the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto unless it’s a bus ride to the Ford Performance Centre for practice or BMO Field for a chance to get outside.
With teams confined to the bubble in Toronto or Edmonton due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus for as long as their seasons go on, the Hurricanes are not alone. But until the Calgary Flames won their Qualifiers series against the Winnipeg Jets in Game 4 on Thursday, Carolina, because of the quick work it made of the Rangers, was the only team with nothing but time on its hands. No game to play, no opponent to prepare for.
They only found out Friday they will be the No. 5 seed in Eastern Confernece for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and will play the loser of the round-robin game between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals on Sunday (Noon ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS, NBCSWA, NESN).
So the Hurricanes set out to make a plan. Strength and conditioning coach Bill Burniston and vice president of communications and team services Mike Sundheim huddled with Brind’Amour to talk through the possibilities and set the schedule, one that mixed business with pleasure.
“We’re very fortunate that Rod Brind’Amour asked for our input and considers our input,” Burniston said. “It’s really a team approach.”
They worked backward, starting with Tuesday, the first possible date the Hurricanes would open the Playoffs.
“What would be the best days to do our most work and the highest intensity and the highest workload, and either taper from that standpoint or ramp it up from that standpoint,” Burniston said.
The Hurricanes would have to manage two concurrent threads. The first was the performance element, ensuring that their fitness and readiness were where it needed to be when they next play a game.
The second was the mental aspect, keeping the players sane and happy.
“Just really the mental side of things for me … trying to figure out how to keep them engaged when we’re not playing,” Brind’Amour said. “The big challenge this week is how to stay sharp, at the same time mentally staying with it.”
For that, they were already well situated.
The Hurricanes, like most teams, have turned their hotel floor into an adult version of summer camp, or perhaps a college dorm. There are world-class athletes bouncing down the hallway in bare feet, stepping around the spontaneous miniature golf games set up on the floor, passing by the pingpong table set up by the elevator bay, into the players lounge constructed in a two-bedroom suite, with two TVs moved next to each other in one of the bedrooms to provide optimal viewing for two hockey games at once.
There is a PlayStation that, according to Sundheim, hasn’t really been touched. There’s a card table with a poker set that has seen much more frequent use, and a stack of board games, including Codenames and The Settlers of Catan, brought by defenseman Jaccob Slavin, to Super Tock, brought by forward Jordan Martinook.
“We have our players lounge on our floor,” Martinook said. “That’s like common ground, common eating place. Everybody’s usually in there together and then the poker game will get started or somebody will come in and be like, ‘Hey, you want to play a game of Catan?'”
It gets intense. But so does everything.
“Anything we do is competitive, I feel like,” Martinook said.
Catan has probably been the most popular game, with five or six guys playing every day or every other day. Fibbage, a trivia game in the mold of You Don’t Know Jack, has also been a winner.
As has FaceTime, of course, for a connection to home and the outside world.
“I like to play cards,” defenseman Brady Skjei said on the NHL @TheRink podcast. “We have a group of eight or nine that play at the table. We’ve also been playing a lot of golf. We’ll grab the putters and balls and we’ll just putt up and down the hallways. I’m usually golfing or playing poker or watching the other games.”
But as much fun as the Hurricanes have created in their designated space at the Fairmont Royal York, there’s also the other thing on their agenda: work. Or, at least, getting themselves in the right place to compete when a game next appears on their docket.
Their schedule Thursday started with breakfast followed by a bus trip to Ford for a low-intensity practice.
“We just want the guys to be able to compete, that’s something that we always shoot for,” Burniston said. “There wasn’t very much preparation because we don’t know who our opponent’s going to be.
“We didn’t do a whole lot of work on anything but small games. The team was split up into two teams, and we kind of just competed on a bunch of different drills and a bunch of different games. That was something that was important — so guys can get their work done on the ice but also still be competitive.”
Back at the Fairmont Royal York, they would have to fill the rest of the day themselves — until dinner, when most players call Uber Eats for a taste of the outside world, with Miku Toronto a favorite.
That’s when summer camp begins.
“It’s fun,” Martinook said. “You get to hang out with 25 of your best friends.”
On Friday, preparation ramped up for their next game as part of the exacting schedule that Brind’Amour, Burniston, and Sundheim devised.
Friday was meant to be intense, a chance to overload the system and build some fitness in the midst of the postseason, Burniston said, a rare opportunity to actually make gains. The practice was set up to be one of the harder ones they will run, with an additional hard workout at Hotel X, the other bubble hotel in Toronto, which has a better facility than the Fairmont Royal York.
“We can’t necessarily control our workloads in game situations — the situation is what creates our workload — so we try to do the best we can in controlling our practice days, our off days, our recovery days, all those types of things are what we try to control all year round,” Burniston said.
“We’re able to sit down with the sports medicine staff and the performance staff and sit down and carve out a plan. And the biggest thing we want for our athletes is injury prevention.”
The schedule set Saturday as a day off, after another workout at Hotel X, a chance for the Hurricanes to bond, to relax, to recover, to take a team outing — or as much of a team outing as could be planned while still confined to the bubble. They are scheduled to head to BMO Field, a soccer and football stadium, for a game of spikeball, a chance to get outdoors and see some sunshine on a day that’s expected to be in the mid-70s, with the day’s hockey games projected onto the big screens.
The NHL has rented a nine-hole mini-golf course to be set up in one end zone for the Hurricanes to use, followed by lunch at Lakeview BBQ on the concourse.
“The bubble has advantages and disadvantages, but certainly one advantage is the fact that we’re a pretty close-knit team and we’re able to stick together, with one another, and do team events and the guys are together,” Burniston said. “Something that’s really important to our culture is the family atmosphere, the family that’s inside this bubble, right now, that we call the Carolina Hurricanes.
“That’s important to Rod. That’s important to all of us.”
Then, of course, it’s back to work for normal days on Sunday and Monday ahead of the first round. Until then, it’s just a matter of killing time, staying sharp, then killing more time, and never losing their edge. ‘
It might sound easy. It isn’t.
“I think this week’s probably going to be pretty tough because you don’t have a game to really think about,” Martinook said. “This last five days or four days you weren’t really thinking about your family just because your mind was on the game every day. So I think just hanging with the guys, trying to keep yourself sane, FaceTime, hopefully we find out soon who we’re playing.”
For now, everyone is in good spirits. Everyone is happy. Everyone is rotating among golf and games and Uber Eats and Catan and watching hockey.
Soon they will know what’s in store for them. Soon this week of waiting will be over.
“Rarely are you going to have the amount of time in between games that we have right now,” Burniston said. “That’s where the challenge is. The challenge is keeping guys engaged, keeping them ready to go. When the bell rings, they need to be ready. That’s where the challenge lies.”